Back when I was in graduate school (more years ago now than I’d like to admit), I once ended up teaching an 8 AM composition class in which 16 of my 21 students were engineering majors. It was a difficult group, to say the least. After weeks of listening to them moan about how the class was a waste of time because, as engineers, they would clearly never need to write, I finally got desperate and turned to my dad for advice. As a career software engineer with IBM, how, I asked, would he respond to my oh-so-frustrating and frustrated students?
“I’d tell them they’re right,” he said matter-of-factly. “You don’t need to be able to write to be an engineer. They can get jobs and work for their whole lives without knowing how to write.” (That was when my heart sank to my toes.) “But,” he went on, “If you can’t write, you can’t be a project leader, or a team leader, and you probably won’t get too far. If you can’t communicate about your work with managers and everyone else, sure, you can have a job, but you probably won’t have much of a career. So if you want to advance, you’d better learn to write.”
It turns out that Dad’s advice is still good. Every year The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveys employers who hire new college graduates, and in addition to listing the top majors employers are looking for (mostly business and technical degrees these days), they also ask what "attributes" respondents are seeking in a candidate. The 2015 survey reveals the top five:
- Ability to work in a team
- Communication skills (written)
- Problem-solving skills
- Communication skills (verbal)
(To see highlights from the report, visit the NACE website.)
While that number three spot already looks like a pretty persuasive reason for learning to write (note that related verbal communication skills appear at number five on the list), the ranking only tells part of the story. After all, the top two attributes employers say they’re looking for are “leadership” and the “ability to work in a team.” It’s almost impossible to imagine how anyone could demonstrate either capability without being able to communicate effectively in writing--whether that writing takes the form of a report, a memo, an email, or a Powerpoint presentation. Not for the first time in the U.S., we find ourselves increasingly preoccupied with STEM education—and justifiably so, I believe. Still, it behooves us to also remember that the ability to write and communicate remains the foundation of success in any academic discipline or career. It’s important whether you’re an accountant, an electrical engineer, or a marketer. My dad knew that. And so do employers.